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Chuck Landon: MU's fate could have been similar to Shockers

Apr. 09, 2013 @ 12:32 AM

Decisions are part of life.

And sometimes death.

This is a cautionary tale about two universities who made those decisions and the far different paths that were the result.

The decisions began at Marshall University during the aftermath of a horrific plane crash on Nov. 14, 1970, that ended the lives of 37 football players, most of the coaching staff and a total of 75 people.

Despite the enormity of the challenge, Marshall's leaders decided to continue football the next season and the task was well-documented.

Then, there's Wichita State.

What many people have forgotten over the years is the Shockers' football program also was the victim of a tragic air crash during the 1970 season. On Oct. 2 at 1:14 p.m., an aircraft operated by Golden Eagle Aviation crashed near Silver Plume, Colo., en route to a game against Utah State in Logan, Utah.

Among the 31 casualties were 14 Wichita State players.

A second plane carrying reserve players landed safely. The remaining players decided to restart the season and finished 0-9.

Much like Marshall, Wichita State decided to continue playing football. But also similar to Marshall, the Shockers had little success.

While the Herd struggled through 13 consecutive losing seasons after the crash, Wichita State posted only two winning records in the next 16 seasons after its disaster.

That's when the two schools' eerily similar destinies changed.

Wichita State decided to drop football after the 1986 season. The Shockers' ironically named Cessna Stadium was empty.

Marshall, on the other hand, opened the newly constructed Edwards Stadium in 1991 and became the winningest major college football program of the '90s.

But that was then and this is now.

And, now, it can be debated which school made the most successful decision.

Wichita State made men's basketball its marquee sport and coach Gregg Marshall -- a former Herd assistant in yet another piece of irony -- led the Shockers to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, Wichita State was only two bad officiating calls from playing in the national championship game Monday night.

Could that just as easily have been Marshall?

Yes.

That's because mid-major basketball programs still have a viable opportunity to ascend to the very pinnacle of Division I basketball.

It happens nearly every year.

There's a Virginia Commonwealth or Butler or George Mason or Florida Gulf Coast or, yes, a Wichita State in most NCAA Tournaments.

But in football?

Mid-majors have no chance to reach that plateau of success. Why, Marshall's 1999 team went 13-0, was ranked No. 10 in the Top 25 poll and still played in the lowly Motor City Bowl.

Since then, the abyss between the power conferences and the mid-majors has done nothing but deepen.

If Marshall's football team posts a 12-0 record in 2013 will the Herd get a bid to the Orange Bowl? Or the Rose, Sugar, Fiesta or Cotton?

Of course not.

The opportunity to compete for a national championship doesn't exist for mid-majors in football, but it does in basketball.

Wichita State proved that. And don't think that couldn't happen here. The Huntington/Charleston television market ranks No. 65, while Wichita is No. 66.

So, which school made the better decision over the long-term for the success of its athletic programs -- Marshall or Wichita State?

That's an argument waiting to happen.

Chuck Landon is a sports columnist for The Herald-Dispatch. Contact him at 304-526-2827 or clandon@herald-dispatch.com.

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